If you are considering going to grad school, people are going to start throwing conflicting opinions at you as to whether you should go to grad school directly after undergrad or if you should take a few years off and then go to grad school.
Both paths are valid and have their respective advantages/disadvantages, so when it comes down to the decision, you are the one who needs to decide what is right for you. Listen to others and consider what they have to say, but make sure the choice is yours, because you know yourself best and what will be the most helpful for your career goals.
That being said, you want to decide which path to take as soon as you can because there are some time-sensitive matters that revolve around grad school, and you want to make sure that you have planned ahead and are ready to take everything on. So let’s look at both sides to hopefully help you make your decision.
Going Right After Undergrad
Going to graduate school right after undergrad may be the best option for you if you know for sure that you want a graduate degree. Though undergrad is a long four years, you will already be in the “student” mode of studying and going to class. This can make it easier to power through a master’s program. Others who wait to go may develop a career or family in the time between undergrad and grad school. Trying to manage a family, job, and grad school may be much harder than continuing after undergrad. Speaking to people who have taken both path about the challenges that they faced may help you determine what is right for you.
Another consideration is what you can do with your undergrad degree. Do you have a lot of job opportunities with it? Or are you limited to only a few options? If you took a job and waited, would you be working in your desired field or have to find an unrelated job? Having limited options or many jobs you’re interested in requiring a masters degree may lean in favor of going to grad school immediately after undergrad.
Grad school is very competitive to get into, so the sooner you can start applying, the better. If you want to take a year off and then apply, and, let’s say, don’t happen to get in, you have to wait two years after undergrad instead of just one. If you are debating on whether to wait or go right after undergrad, it may be a good idea to go ahead and apply to see if you get in. This could impact the decision for you. The sooner you start grad school, the sooner you will be able to reach your dream job. If that job requires a PhD then getting your Master’s out of the way as soon as possible gives you more leverage when applying for your PhD, and means that you will get out sooner since PhD’s take about 5/6 years to complete. If you aren’t quite sure which grad school is the right one for you yet, it might be a good idea to wait a year and feel out your options.
If you go this route, how should you prepare?
Honestly, no one really tells you how to apply to grad school, so this is some free info to keep in mind. Most grad schools require the GRE for you to get into their program, so you want to plan early for this. The latest that you should take the GRE is the summer before you go into your senior year because grad applications can be due as early as October, and it takes a while to study, take the test, and get your scores. Plan ahead for this and study hard! The test is not fun and definitely takes practice.
You also are going to need at least three letters of recommendation, preferably at least two from professors in your field, so get started on that early. If you already know which professors you want to ask, shoot them an email or ask them in person if they’d be comfortable writing you one. If you haven’t gotten close to professors, now’s the time to do so. Go to office hours, go to events, ask questions, and build a relationship so you can ask them to write you a letter.
To make the application process as smooth as possible, write down all the application due dates and don’t procrastinate on filling them out. There is a lot to fill in and the essays are a key factor in the decision process. Make sure to proof read and have someone else look at your application to make sure everything is okay.
If you aren’t quite sure which grad school you want to attend, need a mental break from school, want more experience to make yourself stand out, or don’t want to stress during your senior year, then waiting a year is probably the right decision for you. If you know that you’ll be self-motivated enough to go back to school after time off, then it could be very beneficial. Taking a year off also allows you to get more experience and develop your CV.
Waiting a year also means that you have more time to study for your GRE and can have more chances to get the score that you need, and you have more time to get letters from your professors. Just make sure that you ask some professors for your letters BEFORE you graduate, so they remember your class participation/grades and can ask you any questions about the recommendation letters while you are still around.
Waiting a year also gives you time to go visit the grad schools and start connections with (potential) future professors. This can really help you on your applications since some grad schools ask you to list which professor you want to work under and who you have already reached out to. These connections are key for getting in and getting scholarships! Might as well go for free, right?
The problem with waiting is that sometimes life happens and you might not go back for a couple of years, which can turn into 10 years, which can turn into not getting your Master’s at all. It can also lead to you getting some temp job and then never leaving, so if you plan on taking a year off, you need a game plan as to how you will spend that year prepping for grad school, not just wasting it and doing everything last minute. The whole point of the extra year is so you won’t have to stress about your apps, but if you become lazy and procrastinate it won’t help you much. If you are self-motivated and know what you want, you won’t fall into this, but it is important to keep your goals in mind so you don’t lose sight of them.